‘And they didn’t do as the King of Egypt told them’: what great courage lies within these few words, which describe how the midwives Shifrah and Puah refused to obey the royal decree. Ordered quietly to strangle at birth all the male babies born to the Children of Israel in Egypt and thus to become the instruments for Pharaoh’s policy of covert murder, they plainly and unhesitatingly refuse. Since their time how many people throughout history have acted as those midwives did, most of them perishing unknown. How many more people have understood that here is the greatest of all possible moral examples!
From where do the midwives’ draw their courage? The Torah tells us that ‘they feared God’. In the Biblical context these spare words indicate inner obedience to a simple and universal morality. One doesn’t kill, steal, or harm the defenceless; one conducts oneself thus irrespective of the powers at stake and whether or not there are human witnesses through whom one’s deeds may come to light, because there is One who knows, before whom the conscience is determined to do what is right.
Yet, great as this is, perhaps there is still a further element or motive. For it can be no accident that moral resistance, and hence redemption, begins with two women, two midwives, whose occupation is to assist in the process of birth, the wonder of the emergence into this world of new and helpless life. Nothing stands so deeply in opposition to cruelty and murder as such witness to the drama and tenderness of birth.
I remember as clearly as if they happened only minutes ago the first moments of each of our children’s lives in this world,- the midwife saying ‘Hold the baby while I attend to your wife’, those tiny hands and feet, the big eyes looking. I remember thinking, ‘How loud, glaring and bewildering this all must be’, and recalling the Talmud’s legend that there are whole worlds the unborn baby knows and, at the hour of birth, must relinquish and forget.
I don’t see much television, but Nicky said to me, ‘You’ll like this’, and we watched Call the Midwife together, the recent Christmas episode. (The series is based on Jennifer Worth’s writing about her actual experiences in the profession.) To observe such kindness, grounded in the poverty of the East End, the workhouse not so long closed, the streets frozen, the basements often grimy; to realise that there are such people who have the gritty humour to know how to gain the trust of even the most lonely and defended of people; to see such goodness touch the long grief of a bereaved old mother whose children were buried in the common grave without her even having been told where, – Nicky was not wrong.
And, as this was the Christmas episode, it lead me to reflect on the relationship between birth and the divine. To Christians this is the miracle of God become human, of the holy family. I’m sure this invites no lesser a latitude of interpretation than do the doctrines of all faiths to their faithful.
But watching made me think of the wonder, of the sacred, which lies in each and every human life, and of how kindness is really next to, or perhaps a form of, godliness. It reminded me of how our redemption as a people began with the work of the midwives, and made me think that perhaps all redemption always begins which such devotion, courageous and immovable, to life.